Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Of All Time


After having to wade through the fetid swamp of the BBC's 100 Greatest American Films last July,(1) what a relief it was to be presented last month with The Guardian's list of the 100 Best Novels Written in English, reinforcing my conviction that, even if the film medium survives another hundred years (and even if works of great merit continue - stubbornly - to be made), it will never completely escape its origins as a carnival sideshow attraction.

Robert McCrum spent two years compiling the list, which was published in the Observer and theguardian.com. That he spent so much time coming up with the list seems astonishing given the results. One of the authors with a novel on his list - Anthony Trollope - had a daily routine of writing two thousand words before going to his full-time job at the Royal Mail. McCrum compiled his list after establishing a set of draconian rules that severely limited the quantity (only one novel per author) and quality of his choices. To mention only one example: when he compiled his 100 Greatest Novels of All Time in 2003, McCrum could only name one novel by Tolstoy, so he named Anna Karenina and left out War and Peace, which is one of the biggest sins of omission ever committed.

His defense of his choices is rather more impressive than the choices themselves:

In the parlour game called 'Humiliation', in David Lodge's 70s campus novel Changing Places, the players score points by confessing the famous works of literature they have never read. In a memorable comic climax, ambitious academic Howard Ringbaum admits he has never read Hamlet, instantly wrecking his career.

Lodge's insight into the practice of literature is that everyone who steps into the world of books and letters risks humiliation. Rightly, for the well-being of culture and society, this is a competitive affair. Beneath the eye of eternity, it's a matter of life and death: either some kind of literary afterlife or (more likely) oblivion.

Casual browsers sometimes took a moment to grasp that my list of 'top novels' was a) derived exclusively from fiction written in the English language; b) strictly chronological; and c) gave each writer equal space, an especially restrictive criterion. With a prolific writer, the selection of one 'classic' text became almost intolerable. To cite an unfair example - Dickens (No 15, David Copperfield) and Wilde (No 27, The Picture of Dorian Gray) appear in the list on the same footing, with one novel apiece. With such rules, every thoughtful person must concede that my list is bound to have its ridiculous side.

After answering the question "what is a classic?" McCrum admits that "thereafter, the issue becomes subjective. Classics, for some are books we know we should have read, but have not. For others, classics are simply the book we have read obsessively, many times over, and can quote from. The ordinary reader instinctively knows what he or she believes to be a classic. While our preferences inevitably reflect gender, nationality, class, and education, there is no accounting for taste."

But there are perfectly sensible ways of accounting for taste. McCrum admitted that it's "a competitive affair," otherwise known as "criticism." Not only are there books (and films) around which all the conflicting and contradictory subjectivities sometimes agree, but there are standards that exist - that must exist - to which every critic can appeal. George Orwell, who was an insightful literary critic, knew that "ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion."(2)

While admitting, like McCrum, that so much of serious criticism consists of emotional responses reinforced by often shaky rational arguments, Orwell also insisted that there was something called "intellectual detachment": "Supposing that there is such a thing as good or bad art, then the goodness or badness must reside in the work of art itself."

It would be irresponsible of me not to object to some of McCrum's list, but what is more interesting to me are the little inconsistencies that have appeared between this list and McCrum's 2003 100 Greatest Novels of All Time. For instance, of the many novels in English that made the Greatest Novels list, McCrum chose Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang rather than his Oscar and Lucinda, Roth's American Pastoral rather than his Portnoy's Complaint, Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians rather than his Disgrace, Bellow's Herzog rather than his The Adventures of Augie March, Greene's The Quiet American rather than his The End of the Affair, Beckett's Malone Dies rather than his Murphy, Dos Passos's USA rather than his Nineteen Nineteen, and Conrad's Nostromo rather than his Heart of Darkness. And Mailer's The Executioner's Song, which is one of McCrum's Greatest Novels of All Time, was omitted by him two years later because he thought Mailer was "too much of an American celebrity in thrall of the medium."

While I strongly object to a few of McCrum's choices (Bram Stoker? Jack Kerouac?), I had far less to quibble about with McCrum's list of best novels than I had with the BBC's list of greatest American films. Why? Only one person compiled the list of novels, but sixty-three people submitted suggestions to the list of films. So why does the opinion of one person seem so much more authoritative and acceptable than the opinions of sixty-three people?

Clearly, Robert McCrum was given the job of evaluating three hundred years of English fiction because a) he has done a good deal of reading and only someone who has read as much has any business making such determinations; and b) there happens to be a much broader concensus among literary critics about who is in the winner's circle and who is out. With film, as anyone who has taken the medium seriously knows, consensus is practically nonexistent. For every film critic who thinks that the best films are the ones that employ screenplays and actors, there are others who argue that documentaries or experimental films or silent films are the medium's purest examples; or that only the Russian masters of montage or the Italian neo-realists or Bresson or Straub had it figured out; or that Godard is as important to film as Dante is to literature, and so on. Every ten years since 1952, the British Film Institute has managed to locate enough critics to vote for a handful of films that they think represent some sort of core value, even if that value shifts so erratically from poll to poll that it mitigates all notions of authority.

In his book, Movies Into Film, John Simon suggested that there is a difference between a film and a movie. For instance, Bicycle Thieves is a film, whereas Psycho is a movie. The two words not only imply a difference in quality, they represent wholly different pursuits. I recently watched To Each His Cinema (2006), a compilation of short films by many different filmmakers which captures - or attempts to capture - their nostalgic feelings about the pursuit of filmgoing. Watching it, I thought that, while the ceremonious act of filmgoing, of attending a film screening in a pre-arranged place - whether it's an actual theater or a village square - is dying out, the activities in front of the screen that each filmmaker eulogizes in the To Each His Cinema - the ecstatic attention to the events unfolding on the screen or the interactions of the filmgoers - has nothing whatever to do with the films being presented. One filmmaker depicts people sitting in the dark watching a Bresson film, another shows us people watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but the people and the films seemed to me interchangeable.(4)      

I think McCrum's list is intended to be prescriptive. Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who made a canonical list of a thousand greatest films, confessed that when he bought the issue of Sight and Sound in 1962 that contained the BFI Film Critic's Poll of the Top Ten Films of All Time, he set out to find and to watch every film on the list. That must have been a daunting task in the 60s, even in a big city. I found it just as daunting in the 70s, when I was on the hunt. The amount of trash I had to hew my way through to find a worthwhile film sometimes made it seem like a sleeveless errand.

If David Lodge's parlor game were to concentrate, instead, on film, the players wouldn't face humiliation because they hadn't seen The Passion of Joan of Arc, nearly ninety years old and still one of the three or four greatest films ever made. The winner would always be someone like Quentin Tarantino - not because he has seen every film and is proud of this dubious accomplishment, but because he obviously can't distinguish the good ones from the bad.


(1) If you wanted a list to provoke the greatest number of howls of execration, you could not improve on the Rolling Stone's recently published list of The 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time, which seems to use the premise that songwriting originated in Lubbock, Texas in 1955. Instead of commissioning the Rolling Stone, Apple Music might just as well have commissioned someone who was both illiterate and stone deaf.
(2) George Orwell, "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool."
(3) In a stab at fairness, The Guardian asked its online readers to submit titles that they thought belonged on the list. They published fifteen titles, seven of which were written by what one reader called Straight White Men (some of whom are dead, and who once would have fit the horrible term DWEM from the 90s, or Dead White European Men. Now the word Straight has replaced European as a mark of contemptible distinction). The rest of the novels on the list were written by three straight white women, one African male, two Anglo-Indians (one male, one female), and two African-American women, one straight, the other lesbian.
(4) Despite the fact that the title of Walker Percy's novel is The Moviegoer, which has a far different meaning than if it were called The Filmgoer, which was, of course, Percy's intention.  

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